By Gretchen Schuldt
A rare mix of Democrats, Republicans, law enforcement, and the state Public Defenders Office came together this month to support a bill that would prohibit minors from being charged with prostitution.
Thirty-one people in favor of the bill appeared at a public hearing and another 10 registered in support. No one appeared or registered in opposition.
The measure, Assembly Bill 48/Senate Bill 55, would bring the state in line with federal law, which recognizes children engaged in commercial sex acts as victims, not criminals, State Sen. LaTonya Johnson (D-Milwaukee) said. It also would align with laws in Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan, she said.
"My hope is that it will make it easier for law enforcement and child welfare authorities to convince these children that they have done nothing wrong and are in no way responsible for the horrific acts they were forced into by their traffickers," she said.
"Sexually exploited children exist in my district and in your district," State Rep. Jill Billings (D-La Crosse) told the Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety. "The trafficking of children is happening in urban areas, rural areas, and has been reported in all 72 Wisconsin counties."
State Sen. Jesse James (R-Altoona) said the average age a girl enters the sex trade is 12 to 14 years old. For boys, he said, it is 11 to 13 years old.
"At times, there is a disconnect between the language we use and how we treat victims in the legal system," the state Public Defender's Office said in testimony. "A person under 18 years of age in the State of Wisconsin is presumed to be unable to give consent to engage in a sex act. In most circumstances a person under the age of 18 may not legally enter into a contract. Both are required under the legal definition of prostitution. More importantly, children engaging in sex acts for money are forced or coerced by the traffickers to engage in these acts. Treating children as delinquents/criminals only furthers the process of victimization."
"This bill would prevent the prosecution or adjudication of individuals under the age of 18 for acts of prostitution, recognizing that they are often coerced, manipulated, or forced into these situations," said Donelle Hauser, president and CEO of Lad Lake. The organization said it has been working with underage victims of trafficking for more than 10 years. "By reframing the approach to address the underlying victimization rather than perpetuating a cycle of punishment, we can help these young individuals escape the exploitative environment and provide them with the necessary tools and support to rebuild their lives."
"Child victims of sex trafficking are indeed victims — these are minors who cannot consent to sex and have been exploited and deserve to be protected," said Nila Grahl, Manager of Children's Wisconsin's Racine & Kenosha Child Advocacy Centers in written testimony. "Youth victims of sex trafficking need supportive health care, services and support — not fear of being charged with a crime. Unfortunately, sometimes the juvenile justice system is the only place youth are engaging with formal systems."
"Treating sex-trafficked children as delinquents or criminals is self-defeating and harmful," the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault said in testimony. "The current approach increases distrust of law enforcement and child protective services, which hinders efforts to prosecute those responsible for child sex trafficking. Most importantly, the isolation of detention and the stigma of being treated as a delinquent serve only to exacerbate individuals’ feelings of guilt and shame, ultimately re-traumatizing child victims."
The bill is pending in committees in the Assembly and Senate.
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